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       Fated, p.12

           Sarah Alderson
 
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  The third Hunter she'd been introduced to was a girl aged about twenty.

  At first Evie had been stunned. For some reason she'd expected them all to look like Victor - tall, middle-aged and built like brick houses. And Mrs Lovell and Earl were both about forty, she guessed - which gave Evie some comfort on the life expectancy front - and they both seemed to be pretty militant in the stature department. So to be confronted with a girl shorter and slighter than her, wearing sheer black tights underneath hot pants and heavy Doctor Marten boots, had thrown her.

  Victor had introduced the girl as Risper. She hadn't offered her hand. In fact, Risper had barely lifted her chin in greeting. She had long black hair and blunt-cut bangs that hung down to meet her eyes, which were a churning dark brown colour.

  Evie had expected some level of friendship from among her fellow Hunters. A slap on the back, maybe, a welcome to the fold - at the very least a smile or a word of encouragement. But no, only Mrs Lovell had bothered to smile at her and make her feel slightly less nervous about what was coming. Though now Evie caught her chewing her lip anxiously and darting little glances her way.

  It wasn't making her feel any more optimistic about the training that was about to kick off.

  'OK, Evie, this is designed to develop your instincts,' Victor announced.

  A snort from Risper?

  Evie whipped her head in her direction but she was just staring sullenly at Victor.

  'I want you to stand here. And I'm going to give you these.' He held something in his hand but Evie couldn't work out what they were. 'The others are going to come at you and the idea is for you to hit them with one of these before they can touch you.'

  'So a bit like tag, then,' Evie said lightly, staring around at the two-metre-wide corn circle they'd made in the middle of the field. The farmer would think he'd had alien visitors when it came to harvest.

  'Yes, I suppose.' Victor shook his head. 'You can try without the blindfold first.' He handed her what was in his hand.

  She looked down at what looked like little darts with pointed ends. 'Won't these hurt?' she said, looking up at Victor.

  A little smile fluttered around his mouth. 'Only if they make contact.'

  She stared at him hard. What was he suggesting? That she couldn't hit them? Right. She pulled her hair back and fastened it in a ponytail. She'd show him.

  By the time she was done, the others had disappeared. Victor was standing on the far side of the circle observing her.

  'Concentrate,' he told her.

  She furrowed her brow in reply and tried to block out the sound of the corn swaying and the chirrup of crickets. She could hear an airplane droning overhead. She spun in a circle, trying to catch the whisper of movement, her arm raised, dart poised. When she spun back, he was standing in front of her. Earl. The silent one. She glared at him as he placed his hand gently on her shoulder.

  'OK, out,' Victor called. Earl went to stand next to him. Evie huffed out a breath and tried to concentrate again. She closed her eyes, struggling to pick out a break in a corn stalk or the tread of a foot on uneven ground. There. Just there. She spun and threw her dart. The surprised expression in Mrs Lovell's eyes showed Evie she must have hit her. She looked down and spied the shaft of the dart sticking into the top of her thigh.

  'Oh God, I'm so sorry, Mrs Lovell,' Evie said, dashing forward.

  'Evie!' Victor yelled.

  She turned around, confused as to why he was yelling at her, and was thrown backwards, slamming into the ground, the air knocked out of her. She was too stunned at first to understand what had happened but then Risper's boot came down hard on her chest, pinning her to the floor. She writhed underneath it like a bug pinned on a Petri dish, feeling a sudden surge of hatred towards this girl in her ridiculously short hot pants. Risper snarled something unintelligible and stepped away at Victor's order.

  Mrs Lovell helped her to her feet and brushed her down. She'd pulled the dart out of her leg and handed it over. 'Good shot, well done,' she said.

  'OK, again,' Victor shouted.

  'What?' Evie rounded on him, nursing her bruised ribs.

  'This time, you're blindfolded.'

  She started to blurt out something about him obviously wanting to see her killed and why not just give them all sniper rifles while he was at it, but he wasn't listening. He twisted her and tied the blackout cloth over her eyes without another word, leaving her nose and mouth clear. Then he spun her into the centre of the circle.

  'You have to learn to concentrate, Evie. You need to block out the other sounds, focus on your instincts. Focus!'

  She tried to follow his orders and focus. There was no way she was going to let that girl Risper floor her again. She breathed out and urged her senses to take over. She breathed in, smelling the air, Victor's aftershave, something more floral from behind her. Then she felt it, a rush in her head, a sensation in her gut that made her duck, all at once, folding herself flat to the floor. She heard the grunt as someone landed awkwardly off to her right and she twisted around, her hand ripping a dart forwards.

  'Excellent. You got Earl.' Victor's voice boomed through the clearing.

  She felt the elation in her head, the smile break across her lips, heard Earl's footfall as he went to join Victor. She tried to get her bearings, stood slowly, turning in a circle, sniffing the air, letting her instincts guide her. She could hear the melody of the wind through the branches. It had a rhythm, and then the rhythm broke. There was the floral scent again. She threw a dart without even thinking, straight ahead of her. There was no sound in reply to indicate if she'd hit anyone, but a gentle hand touched her on her shoulder.

  'Nearly, Evie. You just missed Jocelyn.'

  Evie frowned under her blindfold. That left Risper. She concentrated hard, letting the darkness sink into her, letting her instincts rise to the fore. The noises were secondary she was realising, helpful, as were the smells, but really it was like she was being guided by some completely new sense. Which if she could learn to trust it could be bigger and better than all her other senses put together. Only it was evasive and she was scared to give in to it. It was like throwing herself into an abyss.

  She took a step. Then suddenly she felt it - her body screaming at her to move - and she threw herself in a wide arc as something whistled by her. She heard Victor shout a warning, 'Risper!' Whether he was warning Evie or yelling at Risper wasn't clear.

  But it was too late. Evie was running on instinct. She dropped to the ground and rolled as another thud landed right on the spot she had been standing on and, with a flick of her wrist, threw the final dart sideways.

  She was rewarded with a scream.

  She tore off her blindfold. Risper was clutching her arm. She yanked the dart out as Evie watched and flung it to the floor. Victor came up and put a restraining arm on her but his grin was aimed at Evie. Mrs Lovell and Earl were also smiling at her from behind him. She smiled back.

  'I think I found my instincts,' she said.

  'Finally,' Victor replied. 'OK, one last time for today.'

  Evie started pulling the blindfold up. Now she had it, she couldn't wait to go again. Maybe this time she could put a trio of darts in Risper.

  'No, no blindfold this time, Evie,' Victor said. 'This time we use weapons. You'll need your eyes.'

  'Wait, wait, what? Weapons? What do you mean?' she asked, grabbing for his sleeve.

  'Here,' he said, handing her a gun. 'It's loaded with blanks. They explode with coloured paint on impact so we can see if you actually hit anything. The others are armed too.'

  She turned around. Mrs Lovell was clutching a bow and arrow and Evie burst out laughing before catching herself. Because no one else was laughing. Not even Mrs Lovell. Earl had his two crossed swords. She forced herself to keep a blank face as she turned with a sense of foreboding towards Risper. She saw immediately that she had been right to be afraid.

  Risper had two circles of steel in her hand with serrated edges. Her father had st
ocked something similar in his store. They were the blades from a circular saw.

  She spun back to Victor. 'Are you serious? And you're only giving me blanks?' Had he not figured out yet that Risper was a maniac and was clearly planning on embedding those round metal discs in her skull?

  'You'll be fine,' Victor said, brushing her off. 'They won't hurt you. It's just to up the ante a little.'

  Up the ante? This wasn't some gladiator arena with Victor casting himself as Emperor Augustus. This was madness. They all had weapons that could kill and she had a gun that fired blanks. How was that fair?

  'I can't . . .' she whispered to Victor's retreating back. She whipped around, feeling herself suddenly alone. The circle was empty.

  She hesitated for only a second before her automatic pilot kicked in and she cocked the gun. She held it like her dad had taught her, in both hands, pointing dead ahead, and then, aware she was a fish in a barrel in her current position at the centre of an open circle, she slipped between two rows of corn and disappeared.

  15

  Lucas kept circling the cornfield. At one point he'd had an uninterrupted view of the circle with Evie stood in the centre blindfolded. He'd watched Victor give the orders and the others converge. He knew Victor, of course, and he had heard about Earl, a long-standing member of the Hunters, recognised him by the baldness and the crossed swords on his back. The older red-headed lady, Jocelyn, lived in town. She was the one he had to avoid every day on his way to the Del Rey ranch. The fourth one, a girl called Risper, was an unknown. He didn't think even Tristan knew of her. And clearly she was not a fan of Evie's.

  He decided to follow her, keeping his distance. He didn't want to give himself away but they were all concentrating so hard on sneaking up on Evie in the centre of the circle that they weren't paying any attention to their own instincts or the fact that an Unhuman was stalking them. But he didn't want to throw Evie's instincts - as delicately balanced as they were - she needed them all focused on Risper's whereabouts.

  Because he didn't want to distract her, he had pulled back, just far enough to see the attack - Risper springing out of the corn straight at Evie, Evie ducking and rolling blind, spinning out of Risper's way, narrowly avoiding a roundhouse kick to the ribs and firing a dart blind but hitting Risper's arm.

  He had smiled despite himself but now he was stalking Risper, who was stalking Evie, and his eyes were on the metal circles she was holding between her thumb and forefinger. He had no doubt that Risper intended to use them, no matter what Victor's warnings had been, and his curiosity was piqued. Someone else with vengeance on their mind? Or was there some other drive? Either way it was strange for Victor to have her in the field. Mind you, it would save the Brotherhood a job if he just sat back and let her get on with it.

  He felt Earl to his left - the man was light-footed for his size, but the sound of him unsheathing his swords was a dead giveaway. Luckily Evie heard it too. She froze and he watched her close her eyes and take a deep breath. When she let it out she started running full tilt and he had to sprint to keep pace with her, running a parallel course, getting flashes of her dark hair flying. At one point she came to a skidding stop, her blue eyes darting towards him, and he realised that she could sense him. Could she even see him? He had dived backwards well out of range, almost to the edge of the field, and waited until finally he heard a bullet crack and Earl shout, 'I'm hit.'

  Lucas couldn't stop from smiling this time. Good hit. He wished he could have seen it. He edged further into the field, still anxious to keep an eye on Risper. It was easier to find Evie, he knew her scent by now, the strong smell of the lavender shampoo she used and the softer, more subtle scent of her skin. She was running at a crouch now, weaving in-between stalks but on a clear path, as though she was being drawn somewhere. He saw the wire on the ground a split second before she did and had to stop from yelling at her to jump. He didn't need to. She saw it in time and leapt over it, diving onto her back with the gun pointed into the air. When she saw no one there she looked confused. And that's when the red-haired woman stepped out from behind her, and tapped her on the back of the neck with the tip of an arrow.

  Silently she bent down and offered her hand to Evie and helped her up. Then she took Evie's gun and fired it at the ground, making sure she got the wet paint on her shoe.

  'I'm out,' she yelled, her eyes not leaving Evie's the whole time. She then pointed with her arrow into the corn and whispered, 'Watch your back.'

  Evie nodded silently and moved off. Lucas followed.

  Risper was almost as silent as he was. Almost as undetectable.

  Almost.

  Lucas picked her up first. She was stalking them, circling around Evie to come at her from behind. Lucas dropped back and hovered just out of range but Risper was like a panther, focused only on dropping her prey and not on the Unhuman right beside her that could drop her at any moment if he chose. He found his breathing was running rapid, his hands reaching for his father's blade, and he had to force himself to hold back. There would be another time. Not right here. He wouldn't stand a chance if he blew his cover taking out a girl who wasn't even his target.

  Risper was about ten metres to Evie's left when he caught the circle of silver glinting in the sun. Evie paused too, as though suddenly alert to the danger, and Lucas watched as Risper drew back her arm.

  He had to choose. And in the instant that Risper brought her arm forward, Lucas chose. He ran straight at Risper, knocking the wind out of her, managing to jolt her arm as she let the disc fly. She tore around, her eyes desperately searching for whatever had bumped her, but he was gone before she could piece it together. Her reaction would be panic, her senses screaming at her that there was an Unhuman out there, but maybe there was doubt too. No Unhuman would be stupid enough to enter a space with that many Hunters in it - would they? He tracked back to Evie, who was crouched down, her eyes fixed on the disc lying on the ground by her side.

  An ear of corn lay next to it. She picked up the disc and turned it over, seeming to realise that it had been a kill shot but not understanding fully how she had avoided it. She got to her feet and started running, silently. She reached the clearing and dropped to her knees, her head bowed, her eyes shut.

  Lucas felt himself tense, his ears tuned to the sound of Risper heading this way. What was Evie doing? He took a step towards her, instinctively wanting to shield her, realised what he was doing and stepped back into the shadows. Evie's eyes suddenly flew open. She was staring right at him but then she frowned before screwing her eyes shut again. He melted backwards and when she opened her eyes again he saw the confusion as she stared at the empty space around her.

  And then in a move he couldn't have foreseen she hurled the circular blade right at him. It grazed the air a millimetre to his left. Damn it. She was aware of him. She was feeling him. And he was endangering her more than Risper by being here.

  And then he saw Risper stepping into the circle between him and Evie, levelling the blade and hurling it with force. He felt the wind still and heard the single whisper of steel cutting air and it felt like he was waiting for it to slice into him.

  'Hit!' Risper yelled.

  He stepped forward into the circle of light, saw his shadow fall ahead of him, announcing him. He heard the footsteps of the others running full tilt towards them and he stepped back into the shadows as they burst into the clearing.

  And then he turned and vanished.

  16

  She could not believe she was missing a body part. And she really could not believe that Victor had done nothing more than tell Risper to pick up the blade and get lost. As far as she was concerned, Risper deserved banishment from the Hunters altogether, or imprisonment at the very least. She was quite obviously bat-shit crazy.

  Her ear was stinging like she'd thrown herself head first into some nettles. The very tip was missing and that was going to be impossible to explain to her mother. And would mean wearing her hair down for the rest of her life. She
was white hot with anger when she burst into the kitchen, blood trailing down her collar, her hand against the side of her head, holding Victor's cravat in place over the remainder of her ear.

  She wasn't expecting Lucas to be leaning against the wall in the kitchen, arms folded across his chest, an anxious look on his face, or for him to head straight over to her when she slammed through the screen door.

  'What happened?' he asked, his eyes seeming to register both shock and relief at the same time.

  She faltered. 'I, er - there was an accident with a coat hanger.'

  He laughed under his breath and stroked the hair back away from the bloodied cravat she was holding over her ear. She felt a shudder all the way to the soles of her feet.

  'Who won?' he asked. 'I hope the coat hanger is lying in pieces somewhere.'

  'Not quite,' she answered tersely.

  He ushered her straight over to one of the stools and before she could resist had pulled her hand away from her ear. She winced and felt the blood flow freshly. He headed to the sink and doused a cloth, brought it back and held it to the side of her head. She relished the coldness. And the heat his body was relaying to hers. He was standing close enough that she could make out the individual lashes that framed his eyes and the smoothness of his skin. He smelt nice too. Fresh citrus overlaid with that worn leather smell. The pain was dulling. She felt all floaty suddenly. She remembered seeing him in the cornfield - or a mirage of him, just before Risper had sliced her head open, like he'd come to warn her. Maybe her instinct took on the form of a person. Odd, very odd, that she should choose him, but at the same time if her imagination wanted to conjure him she wasn't going to complain too loudly.

  'What are you doing home?' she asked, trying to pull herself towards some kind of coherence.

 
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